The poster image being used by West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) to promote its upcoming production of John Ford’s 1633 tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore has been attacked by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Leeds who believe the depiction of Christ and the Virgin Mary alongside the play's title to be offensive.

A controversial piece of work which addresses an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister, the show has been reset from the 17th century to 1960s Italy for the WYP production, which is directed by Jonathan Munby.

Spokesman for the Diocese of Leeds, John Grady, has called the image - which is also posted as a billboard on the theatre - as "cynical, crass and insensitive", particularly in the run up to Holy Week and the church's Easter celebrations.

Grady highlighted that the play is often revived under titles such as Giovanni and Annabella or simply 'Tis Pity and said he believed the theatre had made a decision "calculated to get publicity and it had worked".

WYP this morning acknowledged that they had received "20 to 30 complaints", each of which is being addressed personally by the theatre within 24 hours of being received. In a statement the company said it "regrets any upset that the image" may have caused, going on to add that "the religious faith of the characters is integral to the development of their stories and we felt it was important that this was reflected in any image chosen to promote the production."

The theatre continued: "At the centre of the poster is the picture of the children holding hands, the suggestion being that candles are being lit and prayers given in the sacristy for these children."

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds, the Right Reverend Arthur Roche, sent a letter to WYP's artistic director Ian Brown on Tuesday (12 April 2011) asking him to remove some 500 distributed posters and billboard however the theatre has said their removal was not practical. The theatre's statement acknowledged that the issue could be resolved as "with any campaign when rehearsals start we begin looking at alternative images, these will be used for other promotional material and on our website".

It has also been reported that West Yorkshire Police had attended the theatre, responded to complaints about the image, however a Police spokesperson this morning confirmed that "no criminal offence had been revealed on examination of the poster's content".

Jonathan Munby, whose recent directing credits include The Prince of Homburg at the Donmar Warehouse, was quoted in the Yorkshire Post responding to the controversy saying: "The fact that people are being offended by the word whore next to the Madonna is unfortunate. It was never our intention to connect the two – it is literally the case of where the title of the play sat on the poster, with the word whore next to the image of the Madonna."

'Tis Pity She's a Whore is designed by Mike Britton with lighting design by Oliver Fenwick, sound design by Mic Pool and music composed by Dominic Haslam. The production will run in the Quarry Theatre at the Leeds venue from 7 to 28 May 2011.